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Newton launches $3.5m project for more ‘vibrant, welcoming’ Washington Street

Proposal includes fewer vehicle lanes, dedicated bike lanes, more plantings, and outdoor benches.

The pilot project would focus on a stretch of Washington Street from Chestnut Street in West Newton to Lowell Avenue in Newtonville.CITY OF NEWTON

Newton officials are launching a $3.5 million pilot project to redesign a stretch of Washington Street that would add bicycle lanes, improve pedestrian crossings, and halve the number of lanes for cars and trucks in an effort to make the roadway safer.

The project is intended to be an early step in creating a “vibrant, welcoming and inviting boulevard” for customers, businesses, and residents along Washington Street, according to Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, who announced the effort in September.

“This is one of the most important transportation corridors in the City, serving many businesses and residents along its route. Currently, the corridor is not very attractive or safe,” Fuller said.

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The pilot program would focus on a roughly one-mile stretch of Washington Street from Chestnut Street in West Newton to Lowell Avenue in Newtonville. It would likely redesign the road from four vehicle travel lanes to two, install turn lanes where they are needed, and add bike lanes, according to Fuller. It would also keep as much on-street parking as possible.

Fuller said the proposal also includes more pedestrian crossings, dedicated bike lanes, improved streetlights, more plantings, and outdoor benches.

Barney Heath, the director of Newton’s Planning and Development Department, said the corridor brings together local vehicle traffic, two MBTA bus lines, highway access, and close proximity to a pair of commuter rail stations in West Newton and Newtonville.

That demand to use Washington Street is expected to increase, as more homes open with new developments along the roadway, including the former West Newton Armory and at Dunstan East. Students use the road to get to local schools, people commute to work by bus or train, customers go there to patronize local businesses.

The city of Newton is working to turn the West Newton armory on Washington Street into affordable housing, which will bring more traffic to the area.Civico Development

But the wide straightaways in that area of Washington Street can encourage drivers to speed, according to city officials.

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“It’s a residential neighborhood. It’s a connector for kids that go to school at Day and Newton North,” Heath said. “It’s got all those things happening... and the road functions, in many respects, like a highway.”

A timeline for the pilot project has not been determined, but it will include community engagement throughout the process, according to Heath. Officials hope to create a long-term plan to reconstruct the entire roadway from West Newton into Newton Corner, according to Fuller.

Right now, the area between Chestnut Street and Lowell Avenue is a four-lane span of asphalt that, to the north, is bordered by private homes, shops, restaurants, and other businesses. On the opposite side of Washington Street, the road overlooks the chasm carved by the Massachusetts Turnpike through the core of Newton.

For Chuck Tanowitz of West Newton, those conditions are “exactly why you need to fix” Washington Street, he said.

“What you just described to me is a horrifying hellscape. And it can be fixed,” he told a reporter.

Tanowitz, 52, said the city should try to improve Washington Street, like taking steps to make the area safer and more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. Making Washington Street more of a destination for people would help increase economic development in the area.

“There’s an opportunity here on this side of the city, to really become a much more interesting place,” Tanowitz said. “We need to decide as a city... do we want a pedestrianized, pleasant place to go, or do we want a place that you can drive in and out quickly? I prefer to have a place to go.”

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Annette Seaward, 57, said she is skeptical of the proposal, given her experience with recent traffic changes in West Newton Square that she said can make driving more complicated.

She said the city should hold off on long-term changes to the traffic flow on Washington Street, especially since traffic is likely to increase as more residents move into the new housing being built.

“I think it makes more sense to wait until the developments are done, and see what the needs are, and what the traffic patterns look like,” Seaward said. “Although [proponents] tell us that most of these people won’t really need their cars, it’s going to affect traffic in a big way.”

In West Newton, resident Mike Ciolino said there may be limits to how much can be done to improve Washington Street.

Ciolino, 60, a West Newton resident, said he uses Washington Street every day. But it’s not a quiet place for a stroll, he said, and he doesn’t feel safe bicycling with the speed and volume of traffic that can travel along it.

“Sure it can be made better. But is it ever going to be my choice of, like, strolling down Washington Street?” Ciolino said. “I don’t think that is going to change unless you move the highway — which I don’t think anyone is going to do.”

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John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.